How instore music affects time perception and speed of activity


It is highly beneficial for many retailers to keep visitors in their shops for as long as possible. This creates more opportunity to have a good sales talk or for the client to make impulse purchases. “Can I use music to lengthen the average stay?” is therefore the question I get most commonly when consulting retailers.

At the same time there are many reasons for retailers not to want to lengthen the average visit. A common strategy in gastronomy, for instance, is built around helping customers as quickly as possible so you can serve as many guests as possible. In this case shortening the average visit might enable you to serve multiple groups on a single table on one night.

Both examples above illustrate situations where we would like to influence how much time a customer spends in a venue. This requires us to influence peoples’ behavior. In other cases we might be more interested in influencing perception. There is a big distinction between actual time passing, and how we perceive the passing of that time. Situations where people have to spend some time waiting in line for instance, would benefit from manipulating the perceived time of visitors. You might not be able to shorten the actual waiting time, but you can shorten the perceived waiting time.

So let’s dive into the techniques here. How can we use sound to influence time perception or speed of activity.

Let’s start with perceived time. Our brain uses a little trick to judge periods of time. It weighs the amount of sensory input that was received and makes an estimation of the time that must have passed in order to receive that amount of data. It is simple and effective: a lot has happened, so a lot of time has passed.

So to influence time perception, we need to manage the amount of sensory stimulation we let loose on our visitors. This might feel counter intuitive, but offering less stimulation results in a shortening of the perceived time. Stimulation is not to be confused with entertainment in this case. Offering someone something to do in a waiting area, for instance, can make it seem as though less time has passed when he or she is eventually served. But such entertainment can come in high or low arousal forms and this has a huge impact on our time perception.

So offering music, as entertainment in a waiting area could help us shorten the perceived time. But to really do so, we need to look for low sensory stimulation. So what is low or high sensory stimulation when it comes to music? Well, research has shown that the main musical arousal variables are tempo, complexity and volume. So a complicated piece of fast classical music played at high volume puts a much heavier sensory load on people than a simple, slow pop song played at low volume.

So if your customers have to spend some time waiting in line before you can help them, it might be beneficial to play simpler, low tempo music at low volume. This will create the illusion of less time passing and people will judge their waiting time as being shorter.

Even more counter intuitive is how musical liking affects time perception. Multiple studies have shown that time seems to pass more quickly when we listen to music we dislike, compared to listening to music we like. Time flies when you’re having fun right? Not in this case. I am not sure what causes this effect, but perhaps music we like triggers stronger arousal. So the old approach where instore music should always be your customers’ favorite music goes out of the window straight away. It all depends on what you wish to accomplish.

Another factor is familiarity. A recent study proved that when playing music people are familiar with, time seems to pass more slowly. So if you wish to make your waiting line feel shorter, play unfamiliar music. Another blow for the old approach to instore music, where popular hits were almost always part of any branded music channel. Again, it all depends on what you are trying to achieve.

So what about behavior? Can we actually change people’s pace?

Well, yes. Studies have shown that music alone can lengthen the average stay in a retail venue by as much as 15%! This is caused by multiple mechanisms, both physical and psychological.

First, there is the link with time perception. If we feel little time has passed, we are less urged to hurry. So if we wish to keep customers in a shop for longer, it is beneficial to shorten the perceived time. So to stretch the average visit, we can use unfamiliar, simpler, low paced music at moderate volume.

Then there is the physiological aspect. Many studies have shown that music affects biorhythms such as heart rate and breath rate. Not coincidentally these variables have a positive relation to some forms of sensory stimulation as well. Fast music will raise your pulse. Listening to faster, louder music actually speeds up our bodies. No wonder it makes us walk that little bit faster as well. One interesting study even showed that faster music in a restaurant causes people to take more bites per minute!

Last year we conducted a study to get a feel for these techniques and found our results to be in line with the above. We exposed consumers to different background music loudness levels while shopping in a virtual supermarket (a simulator developed by the Wageningen University). We found people spent more time in the shop when soft music was playing. Loud music and silence both caused people to do their shopping more quickly. This seems to be consistent with the theory that adding some form of entertainment makes us spend more time in a venue. Making the entertainment heavier in terms of sensory input makes us move more quickly.

Influencing time perception and speed of activity is a sensitive business. You have to decide what kind of perception and behavior would best suit your formula and commercial goals and adjust the music accordingly. If you get it right, the rewards can be great. The same study that found that people spend up to 15% more time in a shop, also found they spend up to 33% more money!

Thomas van Straaten
Instore Media Consultant

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